When you hear the words “Steven Spielberg“, certain images might come to mind. A boy and his bike sail through the air, with the moon shining bright in the background. Indiana Jones outracing a massive boulder. And a massive Tyrannosaurus Rex towering over a bright green and yellow jeep. In over six decades, Spielberg has become responsible for a number of images and tropes that continue to have a major effect on film, television and pop culture — but perhaps the most surprising is the first Transformers movie, which celebrates its 15th anniversary this year.
Michael Bay, who directed the first Transformers and its following sequels, has a considerably different approach to filmmaking. While Spielberg is more methodical and thoughtful in his approach, Bay approaches nearly every one of his films with a pedal-to-the-metal urgency. The heroes talk fast, the villains sometimes faster, and there’s often a mind-boggling sweep of destruction that would put nearly every superhero and disaster film combined to shame. That being said, Bay and screenwriters Alex Kurtzman & Roberto Orci do take a page from Spielberg’s book by choosing to have the film focus on the relationship between teenager Sam Witwicky (Shia LaBeouf) and the Autobot Bumblebee (Mark Ryan).
Many of Spielberg’s films often focus on a young boy and the struggles he goes through while growing up, often applying a fantastical element to that adolescent’s journey. In E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial, the bulk of the film focuses on Elliott Taylor (Henry Thomas) and his friendship with the titular alien. A.I.: Artificial Intelligence chronicles the journey of the android David (Haley Joel Osment) as he grows to embrace human behavior. Even Catch Me If You Can, which is largely based on a true story, features a span of events that take place before Frank Abagnale Jr. (Leonardo DiCaprio) turns 19. Transformers follows a similar train of thought: the film chooses to focus on Sam and Bumblebee’s budding friendship, with the two getting swept up in a quest for the Cybertronian artifact known as the Allspark.
In fact, the scene where Bumblebee first appears feels more in line with a Spielberg film than a Bay film. When Sam first enters Bumblebee in car mode, time seems to slow down to a standstill as he runs his hands over the dusty dashboard and the steering wheel. And when he uncovers the Autobot symbol etched into the steering wheel, there’s a sense of awe. Even the used car salesman Bobby Bolivia (Bernie Mac) offers a bit of advice to Sam that wouldn’t be out of place in a Spielberg movie: “A driver don’t pick the car, the car picks the driver. Its a mystical bond between man and machine.”
Bobby’s words turn out to be oddly prophetic. Bumblebee comes to Sam’s defense multiple times, engaging in battle with the Decepticon Barricade (Jess Harnell) and also stopping the Deepticon Brawl from hurting Sam in the final battle. The two even have their own form of communication since Bumblebee’s voice box was ripped out in battle and mostly uses snippets from songs and movies to get his point across. This is similar to how E.T. had a limited range of speech but could communicate with Elliott. And in the final act, Bumblebee actually does manage to regain his speech — a decision that following movies would strangely choose to walk back.
Another Spielbergian touch in Transformers is the slowly budding romance between Sam and his longtime crush Mikaela Barnes (Megan Fox) – especially the role that Bumblebee plays in bringing the two together. Sam decides to crash a party that Mikaela and her boyfriend Trent (Travis Van Winkle) are attending. When Mikaela gets fed up with Trent’s behavior and breaks up with him, Sam offers her a ride. Bumblebee decides to “malfunction”, making it look like his engine is on the fritz and pulling up to a romantic spot so that Sam and Mikaela can spend time talking. Mikaela also gets pulled into the action when Bumbeblee defends her and Sam from Barricade, and takes the two teens to the other Autobots including their leader Optimus Prime (Peter Cullen).
Finally, the Sam/Bumblebee bond serves as the entry point into the more fantastical side of the Transformers universe. Prime and the other Autobots don’t appear until the halfway point of the film – but this is a feature, not a bug. Letting Bumblebee be the first Transformer audiences encounter serves as a great way to ground the film with a solid bond between man and machine, rather than just starting out with all-out war between the Autobots and Decepticons. In fact, it’s a large part of what makes Bay’s first Transformers film the best one he directed since audiences had that element to connect to.
And it’s an element that Bay slowly lost track of. The next film, Transformers: Revenge of The Fallen, would place its emphasis on more chaotic action and slapstick humor, while Transformers: Dark of the Moon upped the stakes to even more apocalyptic levels. And by Transformers: Age of Extinction, Sam was out the door, replaced by salt of the earth mechanic Cade Yeager (Mark Wahlberg). Bay decided to have Yeager and Prime form a relationship, more or less leaving Bumblebee in the background until Transformers: The Last Knight. Though Bumblebee managed to get through to a mind-controlled Prime, gone was the connection between Sam and his car – and the audience’s link to the more human elements of the film.
Thankfully, those elements returned in Bumblebee, which serves as a prequel to Bay’s Transformers series. Bumblebee travels to Earth after the Autobots lose the war for Cybertron, but is severely wounded and suffers a case of ammnesia. This changes once he encounters a girl named Charlie Watson (Hailee Steinfeld). Through Charlie, Bumblebee regains his memories of the Autobots, and through the golden Autobot Charlie learns to move on from the death of her father. With next year’s Transformers: Rise of the Beasts slated to pick up after the events of Bumblebee, hopefully director Steven Caple Jr. keeps the Spielbergian elements intact.